Dáil Debates – 10 July 2012

Dáil Debates

Topical Issue Debate – Boston College Belfast Project Papers
Tuesday, 10 July 2012
Dáil Éireann Debate
Vol. 771 No. 5

(1) Deputy Micheál Martin:
The Government’s position on the Boston College Belfast Project Papers in light of a recent judgment in the USA

Deputy Micheál Martin: On 6 July, the Federal Court of Appeal for the First Circuit in the US upheld the subpoena issued by the British Government relating to the Northern Ireland oral history project held in Boston College. As a result, Boston College must give police the recordings by its researchers of oral history project discussions and talks with Dolours Price by next month, after an appeals court in the US rejected an effort to stop the release. Boston College in Massachusetts is still trying to quash a broader order for other materials from its projects. I understand that lawyers representing the journalists behind the Boston College interviews with former paramilitaries have requested an urgent and immediate hearing in Belfast in a bid to block testimony being handed over to the Police Service of Northern Ireland, PSNI, and a hearing is expected this week in Belfast.

Subpoenas were issued to Boston College at the request of the British Government under the Mutual Legal Assistance Treaty, MLAT, between the US and the UK. The subpoenas are part of an investigation by the UK authorities into the 1972 abduction and death of Jean McConville, who disappeared and was murdered in the most appalling circumstances.

A number of issues arise. First, one could argue there has been a refusal to face up to the issues surrounding the conflict in Northern Ireland and a failure to be more honest with the families, particularly the families of those who disappeared, such as the family of Mrs. Jean McConville. The issue that has arisen in this context concerns the oral history project and the clear decision of the courts in the United States that academic confidentiality does not trump criminal investigations. This is an important decision and I can understand it.

Bearing in mind the history of Northern Ireland, one must acknowledge that while there are those who, last week, welcomed the decision to have a criminal investigation into activities of soldiers regarding the murders that took place on Bloody Sunday in Derry many years ago, there are also those who will want to see every effort made to investigate fully the abduction and murder of Mrs. Jean McConville. That said, the authors of the history project now feel their lives are at risk because of the court’s decision, which comprises a serious issue in its own right. It is felt bringing closure and arriving at the truth will be jeopardised by the decision.

The balance must come down on the side of pursuing the issue on behalf of the McConville family. Various parties in the North have said we need a forum of reconciliation or a truth commission. They have put forward various ideas, knowing in all honesty that they will never come to fruition. We need an admission that, since 1974, nearly 1,700 people were killed or murdered by the Provisional IRA. People should acknowledge that there was no need for any of this and that, within the Sunningdale Agreement, there was the genesis of a solution. Twenty years later came the Downing Street Declaration and then the Good Friday Agreement. Thousands of people lost their lives unnecessarily as a result of the delay. It was a complete abomination for the people of this island. This needs to be faced up to.

This issue relates to evidence or material Ms Dolours Price gave and which the PSNI believes will be of assistance to it in pursuing the case. I do not know whether this is the case as I do not have access to the material. I have read Voices from the Grave containing the testimony of Mr. Brendan Hughes. It was riveting and revealing in respect of what occurred in the early 1970s in Northern Ireland. It referred to the various divisions within the Provisional movement. If there had been more up-front honesty from the Provisionals-Sinn Féin movement and the truth had been told much earlier in regard to the disappeared, in particular, we might not now be at this juncture. I am anxious to ascertain the Government’s position on this. I ask the Sinn Féin leaders or those whom they may know within the defunct Provisional IRA movement to co-operate with the PSNI in the investigation in order to enable closure for the families concerned.

Will the Minister of State outline what he believes to be the implications of the judgment for the papers handed over to Boston College in regard to the decommissioning body of Mr. John de Chastelain? Has the Government any cause to review the decision to send the papers of the body to the US State Department and Boston College?

Minister of State at the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (Deputy Joe Costello): I have been asked by the Tánaiste to deal with the issue of the Boston College archive, as raised by Deputy Martin.

Let me set out the background to the case. In March 2011, the British Government, acting on behalf of the Police Service of Northern Ireland, PSNI, initiated proceedings with the US Department of Justice under the Mutual Legal Assistance Treaty between the two countries. These legal proceedings led to a subpoenaing of a collection of archived interviews being held in Boston College. The archives are part of the Belfast Project, involving an oral history of republican and loyalist paramilitaries deposited in the Burns Library at the college.

The initial subpoena related to the interviews of Ms Dolours Price and Mr. Brendan Hughes, two former members of the Provisional IRA. A second subpoena was issued seeking “any and all interviews containing information about the abduction and death of Ms Jean McConville”, one of the disappeared victims of the Provisional IRA.

Two legal challenges were launched by Boston College and separately by Mr. Mclntyre and Mr. Moloney to quash the subpoenas. Mr. Mclntyre and Mr. Moloney argued that the British Government had made a “solemn promise” that it would not “reopen issues addressed in the Belfast Agreement, or impede any further efforts to resolve the conflict in Northern Ireland”. In December 2011, these challenges were dismissed by US District Court judge William Young. Following this review, the judge’s order that all relevant materials be handed over to the British Government was delayed following further legal efforts by Mr. Mclntyre and Mr. Moloney. Last Friday, 6 July, the US Federal Court of Appeals for the First Circuit turned down their appeal. As matters stand, this means the archived material must be handed over by Boston College to the US authorities for onward transmission to their British counterparts. However, Mr. Moloney and Mr. Mclntyre are considering a motion for a re-hearing of the case. They also continue to keep their legal options open in the Belfast courts.

Last February, the Tánaiste told the House in reply to a parliamentary question that as the issue of the archive was currently the subject of ongoing legal proceedings before the courts in the United States, it would be inappropriate for the Government to comment on the matter at that time.

On 23 January 2012, Senator John Kerry, chairman of the US Senate Committee on Foreign Relations wrote to Secretary of State Clinton to warn of the danger that the subpoena might “upset the delicate balance that has kept the peace” in Northern Ireland and asked that she “work with the British authorities to reconsider the path they have chosen and revoke their request”. Other prominent Irish Americans have agreed with Senator Kerry’s assessment.

The Deputy will appreciate that a number of factors inform the Government’s views on this matter. The issue is subject to a mutual legal assistance treaty between the US and British Governments. As Senator Kerry and others have said, the issue undoubtedly has the potential to make an impact on the peace process. However, in the Government’s view, the peace process is sufficiently firmly bedded down to enable it to withstand whatever pressures may emerge from time to time. The issue also has a bearing on how we deal with the past generally. We know the pain and hurt of victims, including that of the McConville family, never cease. We need to find sensitive ways of dealing with the past that meet the needs of victims and the bereaved.

Clearly, the case is a matter that the courts in the United States have spoken on and may do so again, as may the courts in Northern Ireland. Officials of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, in addition to those of the Department of Justice and Equality, will continue to monitor closely any further developments.

Deputy Micheál Martin: I accept the Minister of State’s statement that the Government’s view is that the peace process is sufficiently firmly bedded down to enable it to withstand whatever pressures are brought to bear upon it. Increasingly, however, the needs of victims and the bereaved are surfacing, on all sides. Issues are surfacing through the historical inquiries team, with some very limited success in some cases and with some degree of closure in others. Up-front honesty has been singularly lacking from all concerned regarding the disappeared of the McConville family. There is a very clear case for this issue to be addressed.

Will the Minister of State indicate whether he or the Minister for Justice and Equality intends to meet Mr. McIntyre and Mr. Moloney to discuss their circumstances, bearing in mind the fears they have expressed? To be fair to them, they embarked on the project in a genuine way. One might say they believed, perhaps naïvely, in the legal guarantees they received. I accept, on balance, the need to have this issue pursued to secure justice for the McConville family. Perhaps it might be short-circuited if people could indicate what occurred and how it happened so that the McConville family could be given closure. It was a disgraceful and unacceptable action that bore no relation to any degree of civility by any definition or yardstick. It is a stain on the country and the provisional movement in particular.

The Minister of State mentioned that the Government knew that victims’ pain and hurt never ceased and that sensitive ways of dealing with the issue needed to be found. Those ways have eluded us because all parties to the situation, some more than others, proposed solutions that they knew would not travel on the other side, allowing them the facade of being interested in an international oversight body when they knew full well that it would never come about.

Despite the best efforts of the Eames-Bradley process, people could not be pulled together in this regard. As part of the agenda, there is a desire to bring closure to the many families who suffered unspeakable losses as a result of the murder and mayhem of the years in question.

Deputy Joe Costello: The needs of the victims, including in the tragic Jean McConville case, are the Government’s priority consideration. The Government has been seeking all mechanisms to provide reconciliation and effect closure. The Minister for Justice and Equality and the Tánaiste will continue to monitor the proceedings in question. There may be a rehearing of the case, which is the option being retained by Mr. Moloney and Mr. McIntyre. They also retain the option of going to the courts in Belfast.

I did not answer the Deputy’s question on decommissioning. This matter has been addressed under the Vienna convention. None of the material that is also deposited in the Boston College can be accessed until 2041. It is out of the hands of the British Government and the Irish authorities. The material can only be accessed on the request of either of those authorities.